Pastrami is the last thing you’d expect to find in the Bokkeumbap. And there are other unexpected flavors in Sujeo’s version of this Korean kimchi fried rice dish, too. It’s a delicious fusion you can’t quite put your finger on, other than to say it’s so utterly Tory Miller. Whatever it is that Miller creates, you know it will feature fresh, local ingredients that make good sense. It won’t follow any agreed-upon culinary rules and it will taste like home, even if it’s not a home you’ve ever known.
“I love this dish. To be honest, I was like, this tastes like hangover rice,” shrugs the tattooed and mohawked South Korean–born, Racine–raised, New York–trained, James Beard Award–winning Sconnie chef, who turns forty this year. In 2014, he opened Sujeo, and this summer Estrellón, a Spanish-style tapas bar in the new Ovation building. With L’Etoile and Graze, this makes four successful (and wildly busy) restaurants for Miller, who also has a kindergartner and an almost-toddler at home, and still puts in eighty-hour weeks. That’s what makes it all the more hilarious when he says, “I’m looking forward to after forty, like, okay, now I can chill out a little bit.”
Because not to brag, but Miller has “done kind of a lot of stuff.” And all along the way, he’s done it his way. He says he’s never pretended to be anything he isn’t, and he’s had a lot of success exploring just who he is. Now with four restaurants, he’s done, he says. He’s found his balance. At L’Etoile, he can deliver sophisticated global cuisine that highlights his French culinary training; Graze is where he can reflect on cheese-curd-and-greasy-burger summers spent up north; Estrellón will focus on the beautiful simplicity of good food done well in an interactive environment. And Sujeo?
“Sujeo is where I feel the most me,” says Miller, hip-hop music bouncing from the noodle bar, artwork by his own tattoo artist on the walls. “Being adopted, I tend to adapt to a lot of different situations because I don’t know my own background, really. Sujeo has helped me relax a little bit, and helped me finally feel like, you know, I can make this dish because I feel like it. Because I know how and it’s delicious and people will like it.”
That’s the state of the current dining scene in Madison, says Miller, where people are just “excited for yummy food from people that know how to make it.” Not that he has a lot of free time to try new places, but he loves A Pig in a Fur Coat, can’t wait for Underground Food Collective’s upcoming Middlewest, really digs the “Gib’s Bar guys,” and checking out Cento is high on his list. He’s especially wild about Salvatore’s Tomato Pies, over on East Johnson, and originally in Sun Prairie.
“We trade a lot. Patrick [DePula] called us three Saturdays ago. It was hot, and we traded tubs of ice cream for pizzas,” says Miller of the homemade soft-serve in a cone Sujeo boasts as the only dessert on the menu. “God, I love that pizza. It’s bananas.”
Although Miller and his wife Kristine ate their way from Madrid to Barcelona and back in preparation for Estrellón, don’t expect a purebred Spanish tapas experience.
“Wisconsin has influenced me incredibly, obviously. It’s all over, it’s on me,” he says, gesturing to his tattoos. “It’s in every one of our restaurants.” Just as with Graze, L’Etoile and Sujeo, meat and produce are locally sourced whenever possible, then meals are built from there. “It’s an exploration of what you can do with ingredients from here, that I really love,” says Miller, and, case in point, his favorite dish in Spain was charred asparagus. “I took all these pictures and there’s one that’s literally just asparagus and everyone’s like, ‘What is this?’ And I’m like, ‘Aw, man, you don’t even know. It’s so good,’” he laughs. “Those are the types of experiences that even for me, after all these years, it floored me how good that was. And I want to do that at Estrellón, but with things that are in season and make sense. The Estrellón menu is just very true and very simple and honest and real and delicious.”
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